At a luncheon held at the beginning of the year at St. Anne’s Centre, St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston was nothing short of blunt when it came to the city’s bus system.
“It leaves way too much to be desired. Our transit system doesn’t run on Sundays and it doesn’t run past 6:30 at night.”
As those in attendance lingered over coffee and dessert, Joe reminded them the city has approval from the provincial government to help institute a full seven-day service operating over longer hours.
That approval was delivered on August 8 of last year in front of city hall when Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek confirmed the provincial government is committing $1.8 million for transit projects in St. Thomas.
The money will be used for fleet upgrades – including the purchase of 10 new buses with an additional four vehicles for future expansion – and transit technology, including priority signalling for buses at designated intersections.
Better still, Yurek advised the transit projects are being nominated for federal funding under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP), a $30 billion, 10-year infrastructure initiative cost-shared between federal, provincial and municipal governments.
That morning, Preston drove home what has become painfully obvious over many years, “St. Thomas deserves a transit system we can all be proud of.”
For Preston, it was reinforcement of his 2018 municipal election observation that the city’s much-maligned transit operation “is beyond broken.”
“When that new bus pulls up instead of the old, rattly one, they’re going to say ‘Wow, this is good, this is what I need to get to work.'”
The next piece of the puzzle snapped into place Wednesday (Aug. 5) when Catherine McKenna, federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, announced via teleconference federal dollars for the transit upgrade – $2.2 million to be exact – were on the way. The funding is earmarked for the purchase of 14 zero-emission buses and other improvements to transit operations.
As McKenna keenly suggested, “a better ride” for those who rely on St. Thomas Transit.
As is not out of the norm, Preston was just a little more graphic.
“When that new bus pulls up instead of the old, rattly one, they’re going to say ‘Wow, this is good, this is what I need to get to work.
“When the service starts earlier and goes later and now runs on Sunday because it didn’t use to they’ll say, ‘Wow, we have become a city.'”
Those improvements, contained in the city’s Transit Strategic Plan, include 15-minute service on Talbot Street, route revisions, increased hours of operation and Sunday service.
There is a piece of the puzzle still missing, however.
Extending service beyond the city limits to London, Aylmer and Shedden, beginning with a one-year pilot project using a single vehicle is also a recommendation of that study.
Speaking with Preston following the announcement, he stressed that undertaking is reliant on provincial funding.
“We kind of know it’s coming,” teased Preston, adding the extended service would link in nicely with recently announced approvals for regional transit undertakings in neighbouring municipalities.
“The day it is announced we will start in on the planning. I think it’s a natural piece (of the puzzle).
SO THE MONEY IS ON THE WAY, WHAT’S NEXT FOR TRANSIT?
Well, we checked in with Justin Lawrence, the city’s director of environmental services for the game plan moving forward.
It begins with research into who manufacturers zero-emission buses and what models are available, advised Lawrence.
“I imagine you are going to see a lot of municipalities around Ontario and Canada starting to go with e-buses and we’ve already seen it.
“There are some (Canadian manufacturers) who have been around for the last five years but the issue for us is we have to find someone who makes a small bus.
Lawrence noted larger buses are already operating in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver but smaller buses will require some investigation.
In the meantime, the city can proceed with acquiring the other components needed for the completely upgraded transit system.
“There are three different softwares that we will be looking at,” explained Lawrence.
“One is the fares, one is the demand-response transit and one is for GPS and routing. That’s the one that provides information to people on where the bus is.”
The next-generation transit system will see five fixed conventional routes plus three paratransit/DRT routes co-mingling.
“All of that will come together in the implementation period in the first quarter of 2021. We’ve got the funding, we’ve got a plan and we’re going to make it happen.”
Demand-responsive transit traditionally employs buses and other vehicles operating not on fixed routes or timetables but running based on customer demand.
And if you’re going to roll out a state-of-the-art bus operation, new branding should be incorporated as part of the passenger experience.
“There’s a component for refreshing the brand and it will go on the buses, the (transit) hub and anywhere you see anything about St. Thomas Transit.
But it doesn’t stop there, stressed Lawrence.
“We’ve got to create the new bus stops, we’ve got to do the transit hub and we’re in the year where we’re starting a new service provider contract so we have to do that as well.”
Lawrence suggested all of that is likely to come together in the first quarter of 2021.
“We’re going to start with the bus stops. We can do the hub upgrades and there are a number of things we can get started with right away.”
Improvements at the transit hub will include new bus shelters with solar lighting incorporated into them and general improvements for passengers waiting and transferring to other routes.
As to more shelters along the various routes, Lawrence said “It’s possible we will add a shelter at the Elgin Centre which is the eastern terminus of the Talbot route.
“But in general, around the whole city, I think we’ll have about the same number of stops and the same number of shelters.”
There will be new routes (see map) with extended times weekdays and Saturday plus the DRT and the Sunday service.
“All of that will come together in the implementation period in the first quarter of 2021.
“We’ve got the funding, we’ve got a plan and we’re going to make it happen.”
MASKS AT THE READY
Elgin county made it official on Thursday and city council is expected to approve a face-covering bylaw at Monday’s meeting.
As presented to council, the bylaw would support the letter of instruction issued at the end of last month by Southwestern Public Health requiring the use of face coverings by individuals inside buildings where there is access to the public.
“the intent will be to train bylaw enforcement staff to ensure they understand how it is to be applied.”
City manager Wendell Graves, in his report to council, advises the bylaw will allow the city to make additional resources available for enforcement of the letter of instruction through bylaw enforcement officers and city police.
He adds, the bylaw “would, for the most part, be replicated from one municipality to another in order to avoid confusion for residents and to assist in the streamlining of enforcement, should that be required.”
Of note, stresses Graves, “the primary focus is education, however when it has been determined there has been no regard for face-covering requirements, provincial offence tickets will be issued.”
A key point from Graves when the bylaw is passed, “the intent will be to train bylaw enforcement staff to ensure they understand how it is to be applied.”
The bylaw will be in effect until Jan. 15 of next year at which time the need to extend it will be evaluated.
WE’RE A HOLIDAY INN CITY NOW
One year ago, city council unanimously approved recommendations from the planning department concerning amendments to the city’s official plan to support hotel and apartment use at Elgin Centre.
The hotel in question will rise five stories with 95 units and carry the Holiday Inn Express brand.
Future use of the property could also see a mix of apartments and office/retail in a proposed new building fronting Wellington Street.
In a report to council Monday from the site plan control committee, more details about the mid-priced hotel are detailed.
It will include 25 suites, meeting spaces, a pool and an outdoor terrace.
The structure will front on Highview Drive and the required land has recently been severed from the Elgin Centre by the new owner, Railway City Hospitality Inc.
The location of the hotel will require demolition of the west end of the Elgin Centre where the former Zellers store was located.
Obviously, the folks at Holiday Inn feel there is now enough Monday through Thursday traffic to support such an amenity.
Yet, it wasn’t all that long ago that a similar Holiday Inn Express proposal for land owned by Bob McCaig in front of the Timken Centre was deemed not viable because of that lack of traffic.
That fully serviced land continues to sit vacant.
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“The location of the hotel will require demolition of the west end of the Elgin Centre where the former Zellers store was located.” Isn’t that where Giant Tiger is? Didn’t they just move in there?